Going Aloft

I’m not good with heights, never have been, never will be. So climbing a hundred foot up the main mast of ss Great Britain in Bristol to mark the launch of a new heritage experience – Go Aloft! – was always going to be a challenge.

The whole thing was made a little more complicated by steady rain and a gusting wind but my second thoughts (‘It can’t be safe in these conditions!’) had to be pushed aside when I watched a ten year old girl scamper up the rigging ahead of me. So, one foot in front of the other, focus on the next step, and I made it to the top – with views over the Avon and the city of Bristol opening up in front of me. Then, painfully slowly, I inched along the yard arm high above the deck, paused long enough for a photograph to be taken (‘Try to smile...’) and back to the mast and the safety of the deck as fast as my shaking legs would take me.

So why do it? Because I admire the entrepreneurial spirit and ambition that runs through everything the ss Great Britain Trust does. I paid ten pounds to scale the mast – a valuable new income stream for the independent museum. But I also came closer to experiencing the life of a deckhand on the world’s first great passenger liner than I could possibly have done at ground level.

These are challenging times for museums, with significant reductions in funding for many. The museums that thrive in the coming years will be those that are clear about their purpose and passionate and entrepreneurial in delivering it. Brunel's ss Great Britain is one of those, and I was determined to support it whatever my personal fears.

And the girl who scaled the mast so nimbly ahead of me? She gave her father an enormous hug when she returned to deck level and told me it was an experience she’d never forget. How many museum visitors would say the same?

John Orna-Ornstein is the Director of Museums at Arts Council England

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